THE HUNT IS ON
Isabella and Wilhelm stowed their gear and set off to track the tiger cult to the source of their power. Hooghly and the surrounding villages were rife with rumors and speculation about the cult itself. Mysterious and elusive, they nonetheless had spread a blanket of fear across the province of. The armies of the Mughal Empire and the Portuguese were powerless against this secretive foe. Surely members of the cult walked the streets of Hooghly, shoulder to shoulder with the common folk. Yet no one could identify its members, for they hid themselves behind masks of gold.
More frustrating for the scholar and her man-at-arms, there seemed to be no clear consensus as to the location of the cult’s lair aside from that it was hidden deep in the Sunderbans, a massive mangrove forest at the mouth of the holy Ganges river, haunted by man-eating tigers and worse.
For the journey, the two recruited the guide, Gopaul, for he new the country and its people and could speak fair enough Portuguese. On his recommendation, the pair decided to keep the subject of their search a secret. They booked passage aboard a Portuguese river barge and took the Hooghly river south to the coast, where they chartered a small dhow to take them to the fringes of the forest. It was a modest vessel, little more than a glorified fishing boat, and manned by a crew from a village that lay on the outlying coastal region. Gopaul engaged the crew and translated them for the “arrogant ferengi hunter” (Wilhelm) who had come so far to hunt tigers. But it was Isabella who prompted the questions while Wilhelm did his best to endure the tropical heat and maintain his haughty composure.
The crew provided a wealth of folklore for the wanderers:
“Do not believe the mainlanders, who speak of Dashkin Rai at the side of Bonbibi like a whipped dog. We know better. That Daskhim Rai, the demon of the forest, cursed by the gods for his crimes, made war upon them with the other asura until Kali brought all to heel. We know Dakkhin Rai_. The forest is still his domain, and he is no one’s pup.”_
“In the villages that ring the forest, the people draw life from the holy Ganges. They fish and hunt and trade along its waters.”
“In the summer months, men used to go into the forest in search of honey from wild bees. But too many have died in the past years from tiger attacks. Now no one goes into the forest, and many go hungry in the lean months.”
“There is only one tiger in the Sunderbans, and that is Dakkhin Rai. But he has many eyes.”
“If you go into the forest, you must be sure to wear a mask on the back of your head. This way, when the tiger god stalks you, he does not know if you see him or not. The tiger will only strike from behind. The mask can save your life.”
To demonstrate, one of the crew produced a crude, clay mask. Wilhelm was immediately interest, but hesitated at the exorbitant price the Bengali demanded.
“You are being robbed,” Gopaul told the wanderers. “But it is good. They get the better of two ferengi and you buy their good graces.” In the end, the crude clay mask cost Wilhelm nearly a whole rupee.
THE VILLAGE OF THE LAUGHING GOD
When the subject of the tiger cult arose, one crewman offered a clue as to their stronghold. “When I was a young boy, a fakir come to our vilage. He claimed that he had journeyed through the forest on a holy pilgrimage. One day, he came upon an ancient temple, the first to Dakkhin Rai. It was ruined and the forest had reclaimed much of it, but he sensed its power and history and so he sat and meditated.
“When he opened his eyes, he found a tiger sitting before him. Both starred at each other, and the fakir knew that, should he avert his eyes even for a moment, that Dakkhin Rai would claim him as a prize.
“And so he sat their, unblinking. The two starred at one another for three days and three nights. Finally, on the dawn of the fourth day, the tiger lay down before him and fell asleep.”
“What happened after that?” Isabella asked.
“Well,” the man said, “the fakir got to his feet and left, of course.”
“And you believe this story?” She has unconvinced.
“I have no reason not to.”
“Did the man ever tell you how he found the temple,” Wilhelm asked.
“Only that he always traveled towards the rising sun, and that it was three days from the morning that he left the village of the laughing monkeys that he came to it.”
“The what?” Isabellla asked.
“I know of that place,” another of the crewman said. “The village is blessed by Hanuman.
“Once, the monkeys and the people who lived there fought against one another. The monkeys would steal food from the village stores, and the men who hunt and kill the monkeys. And so it went on for all time. Then, one day, a leopard stole into the village and attacked one of the monkeys. A young village boy stepped forward and threw stones at the leopard, driving him away before he could kill. The monkeys saw this, and have never forgotten.
To this day, the monkeys of the village share in all of the responsibilities and bounty of the village. They fish, hunt, and forage right along side the villagers.
“The village is far inland along the banks of the Ganges, towards the northern edge of the forest. When you arrive, you will be greeted first by a smiling statue of Hanuman.”
The crew were happy to offer their services to the hunter. They claimed to know a fantastic spot for tiger hunting; a dry, highland where deer often gather to graze. “And where the deer go, so does the tiger hunt.” The group decided it might be too risky to involve the villagers, and that perhaps it would be better to buy their own boat and hire a few hands on the ‘morrow.
“How much will that cost us?” Isabella asked Gopaul.
“Less than the German paid for that mask.”
It was evening when the boat arrived at the village. While the wanderers waited on the banks of the bay, Gopaul went into town to find a place where they might buy shelter for the night. Almost immediately, the exotic quality of the two travelers drew throngs of curious children, as well as welcoming smiles and suspicious stares from the villagers. The people here were obviously improvised, bordering on famished. Most of the children wore rags if any clothes at all. The village maintained a small fleet of fishing boats that looked fit for coastal travel, including one or two larger vessels that might serve the expedition.
The guide returned with news that he had spoken to a family who had agreed to let the travelers share their hut. It was a large family, with many children. They laid some raised pallets on the porch of the one room cottage for their guests. Isabella and Gopaul entertained the children with tales of Wilhelm’s exploits. After the children were sent to bed, though, their father stepped forward to have a conversation with the travelers. Gopaul translated.
“Is it true you intend to hunt tiger in the forest?” he asked.
“Yes,” Wilhelm implied, lying as best he could.
“Hmmm…” the man said. “Many bad things have happened in the past two years. People do not go into the forest anymore, for fear of their lives. I fear if you provoke the demons of the forest, you will make it worse for us.”
Wilhelm considered this. “It’s likely a fool’s errand. I doubt we’ll see anything, let alone a tiger.”
“Blessed Bonbibi,” their host said, “I hope you are right.”
During the night, the travelers were suddenly awoken by shouts and screams of the villagers. Armored men baring torches and wickedly curved swords rampaged through the village, pillaging and robbing. Some were even attempting to carry off women and children. Isabella immediately distinguished them from the dark skinned Bengali by their paler, golden-hued skin, their almond shaped eyes, and long thin mustaches.
She drew her pistols and fired at a nearby marauder dragging a woman by her hair. The man took the ball in the neck and went down without a sound, leaving his victim to claw her way to freedom.
The roar of the pistols drew more marauders. By now, Wilhelm was on his feet, his blades drawn. Wave after wave of killers crashed upon him, but none could match the German’s swordplay. Gopaul stood at his side, holding his own in the defense of the village. All the while, Isabella roared away with volley after volley of gunfire.
Spying a marauder escaping with two children, Wilhelm gave chase. He shouted after the man, who as alien to the sounds of the German language as he was, could not mistake the mocking tones. He turned against the big man, using the children as shields. As focused as he was on this threat, Wilhelm could not mistake the soft sounds of sandaled feet approaching from behind. The slaver dropped the children and whirled his own swords threateningly, but Wilhelm was not taken with the ruse. He whirled to confront the three men coming up behind him carrying a large fishing net. In moments, all four men lay dead or unconscious at his feet.
The slavers abandoned the village with their booty. Gopaul turned one of the dead men over with his boot and frowned in disdain. “Burmese pirates,” he spat.
With one captive to their credit, the wanderers learned that the slavers were in the service of a Captain Sing, and had attacked the village believing the people there easy prey that might fetch a good price on the slave markets in Thailand.
“Feel like hunting pirates?” Isabella asked Wilhelm.
The big man laughed. “We might as well go to war against the whole damn country!”
The villagers were grateful for the travelers’ defense of their people. The heroes were offered a gift of a dhow they had favored, and three men eagerly volunteered to guide them into the forest. Isabella would not hear it, and made sure the village was compensated for the boat, as well as a bit extra for the supplies that had been lost to the slavers.
THE TIGER GOD’S DOMAIN
On the morning tide, the travelers set out along the delta in their modest craft. The weather had turned misty when one of the crewman caught sight of another Burmese ship. It gave chase as Wilhelm order them men to turn their own boat towards shore, hoping to catch the pirates in the shallows.
The pirates pursued them into the coastal estuaries. Wilhelm ordered them crew to make landfall on a small stretch of muddy shoreline, choked in mangrove trees. He roared taunts across water, hoping to draw the pirates in closer, but after the lookout took a glancing shot from Isabella’s pistols, the Burmese turned their ship around to flee. Wilhelm choked down his disappointment and set his mind back to the pursuit of the cult.
…to be continued.